The Early Edition: November 6, 2018

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND the MIDTERMS

U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies announced last night on the eve of midterm voting they had no indication of attempts to disrupt election infrastructure but that U.S. citizens should nonetheless be wary of Russian attempts to spread fake news. “Americans should be aware that foreign actors – and Russia in particular – continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord,” read a joint statement by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen; Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray – without specifying whether Moscow is allegedly backing Trump’s Republicans or opposition Democrats. AFP reports.

Kremlin-linked Russian agents – thought to have been active in spreading divisive content and promoting extreme themes ahead of today’s elections have working hard to cover their tracks, according to government investigators, academics and security firms. “The Russians are definitely not sitting this one out,” commented Director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.Graham Brookie, adding that “they have adapted over time to increased (U.S.) focus on influence operations,” Reuters reports.

Facebook took down a network of 30 Facebook accounts and 85 Instagram accounts last night following a tip from U.S. law enforcement, just a few hours before polls open for the midterms. “On Sunday evening, U.S. law enforcement contacted us about online activity that they recently discovered and which they believe may be linked to foreign entities,” Facebook’s Head of Cybersecurity Nathaniel Gleicher announced in a statement, Donie O’Sullivan reports at CNN.

Twitter has ramped up preventative measures against domestic troll networks that coordinate their activities through private chats, aiming to push disinformation on the platform. Online trolls, however, are learning from their mistakes and developing fresh strategies to sidestep Twitter’s rules — sometimes with new technology available on other apps, Ben Collins explains at NBC.

Facebook and Google – alongside nearly 60 other companies – have signed up to new internet standards designed by world wide web founder Tim Berners-Lee, who claimed last week that the companies may have to be broken up to reduce their dominance. Compliance with the “contract for the web” will require internet companies to respect data privacy and “support the best in humanity”, after a year in which they have faced “unprecedented criticism for data privacy scandals” alongside the proliferation of fake news and online abuse; “we need a new contract for the web, with clear and tough responsibilities for those who have the power to make it better,” Berners-Lee told the three-day Web Summit in Lisbon last night, Aliya Ram reports at the Financial Times.

Technological advances are progressing “at a warp speed” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres stated yesterday at the start of the  Web Summit. Guterres pointed that technologies like blockchain – digital records linked together using encryption – or gene testing are now common technologies, and asserted that technology is yielding enormous benefits: providing cures for disease, fighting hunger, boosting economic development and growth globally, and effectively addressing world problems, the U.N. News Centre reports.

Online voting using blockchain “could boost voter participation and help restore the public’s trust in the electoral process and democracy,” Co-Founder of the Blockchain Research Institute Alex Tapscott comments at the New York Times, arguing: “in a blockchain-based system, public trust in the voting process is achieved not by faith in one single institution, but through cryptography, code, and collaboration among citizens, government agencies, and other stakeholders.”

“At worst [social media] platforms can use their rules as a pretext for political discrimination,” Mark Epstein comments at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that “terms like “shocking” and “inflammatory” are vague and subjective … and social-media companies offer little transparency on how they enforce their rules.”

A explainer on the six of the most common types of Election Day misinformation: polling place hoaxes; remote voting options; suspicious texts; voting machine malfunction rumours; misleading photos and videos; and false voter fraud allegations – along with tips how to spot and avoid these pitfalls, is provided by Kevin Roose at the New York Times.

IRAN

The Trump administration is granting sanctions waivers for the continuation of conversion work at three Iranian nuclear facilities as it re-imposes sanctions on more than 700 people and entities lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday, commenting “allowing these [non-proliferation] activities to continue for the time being will improve ongoing oversight of Iran’s civil nuclear program and make these facilities less susceptible to illicit and illegal nuclear uses.” Pompeo also confirmed the eight countries the U.S. is granting waivers to for oil sanctions: China, India, Italy, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

President Trump yesterday indicated that he wants to impose sanctions on Iran’s oil gradually, raising concerns about unsettling energy markets and precipitating global price spikes. “With the oil, it’s very interesting … we have the toughest sanctions ever imposed, but on oil we want to go a little bit slower because I don’t want to drive [up] the oil prices in the world,” Trump told reporters before flying to a campaign event, adding that “this has nothing to do with Iran… I could get the Iran oil down to zero immediately but it would cause a shock to the market … I don’t want to lift oil prices,” Reuters reports.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton claimed yesterday there will be additional U.S. sanctions on Tehran, but gave no precise details. “We’re going to have sanctions that even go beyond this … we’re not simply going to be content with the level of sanctions that existed under [former U.S. President Barack] Obama in 2015,” Bolton stated in an interview on Fox Business Network, adding: “more are coming,” Reuters reports.

The U.N. should hold the U.S. accountable for yesterday’s measures that defy a U.N. Security Council resolution, Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. Gholamali Khoshroo wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “The irresponsible conduct of the United States necessitates a collective response by the international community in order to uphold the rule of law, to prevent undermining diplomacy and to protect multilateralism,” Khoshroo wrote, calling for the United States to be held responsible, Reuters reports.

“Turkey is against sanctions … we don’t believe any results can be achieved through the sanctions,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu commented yesterday during a press conference during a trip to Japan, adding that “while we were asking [for] an exemption from the U.S., we have also been very frank with them that cornering Iran is not wise … isolating Iran is dangerous and punishing the Iranian people is not fair.” Al Jazeera reports.

Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday praised the newly restored U.S. sanctions against Iran as “historic,” claiming that they will “strangle” what he characterized as Iranian state-sponsored terrorism. Netanyahu stated in parliament that the Trump administration’s decision to restore sanctions marked “a big day for the state of Israel,” the AP reports.

Iranian Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi yesterday accused Israel of a new cyber attack on his country’s telecommunications infrastructure, and vowed to respond with legal action. Reuters reports.

An analysis of the European response to the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran is provided by Steven Erlanger at the New York Times, explaining that “to date, [European officials] have not managed to put in place a mechanism for sidestepping the sanctions without antagonizing the Trump administration.”

“The real man to watch in Tehran… is [Quds Force leader] Qasem Soleimani” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments, arguing that it will be Soleimani who will “decide how and when to retaliate against U.S. interests, perhaps violently, and the Trump Administration will have to be ready to respond.”

“Over the past year, the Republican administration has repurposed and deployed various tools of communication — from social media hashtags to presidential speeches — to hammer Iran’s Islamist leaders and fan the Iranian people’s grievances against their government,” Nahal Toosi writes at POLITICO in an analysis of the Trump administration’s long-standing information war against Tehran.

Updates on the fallout following the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran are provided at the AP.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Turkish media have reported that staff at Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate attempted to dismantle security cameras in order to cover up the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Pro-government Sabah newspaper reported today that the staff members tried to rip out the camera inside the consulate, and also made efforts to interfere with cameras at the police security booth outside the building on Oct. 2 – the day of Khashoggi’s murder, Al Jazeera reports.

Saudi Arabia expressed “regret and pain” for the Khashoggi’s killing, during a scheduled review session at the U.N. in Geneva yesterday, while stressing its commitment to achieving the “highest possible standards” in human rights in the country, including for women and migrants. President of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission Dr. Bandar bin Mohammed Al-Aiban told Member States in Geneva that Suaid King Abdel-Aziz had personally initiated an ongoing investigation into Khashoggi’s death – following which 40 of the Member States appealed to the kingdom to find out what had happened to Khashoggi, the U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.S. told the U.N. Human Rights Council yesterday that it condemns the “premeditated killing” of Khashoggi and stated that a thorough and transparent investigation is essential. The U.S. had observer status at the U.N. review of Saudi Arabia’s rights record, with Washington having quit the 47-member council in June accusing it of bias against Israel, Reuters reports.

A series of questions that President Trump should be asking the C.I.A. – and that the C.I.A. should be asking itself – regarding the circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s murder, the future of the Saudi reform program and the appropriate deterrent measures, is set out by Michael Morell at the Washington Post.

“Washington should use this moment to exert pressure on [Saudi] Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to extend his economic reform agenda to the Saudi domestic political and civil rights sphere as well,” Nicole Bibbins Sedaca comments at Foreign Policy, arguing that “the pragmatic case for reform is more compelling. Regardless of whether the White House and Congress are concerned about justice for Khashoggi or the future of U.S.-Saudi relations, now is the time to push … bin Salman to make meaningful changes.”

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban launched an attack early yesterday on a newly established joint Afghan army and police checkpoint in eastern Ghazni province, killing at least 13 soldiers and policemen, according to a provincial official. Afghan reinforcements were subsequently sent to the site of the attack in Khogyani district but were repeatedly ambushed en route, the Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

A U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan report released today reports that 56 civilians were killed and 379 others wounded in attacks during Afghanistan’s recent parliamentary election. Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

YEMEN

Forces loyal to the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen yesterday advanced to within 3 miles of the port facilities in the contested Red Sea city of Hodeida, according to officials. Fighting has killed dozens of combatants from both sides, with numerous military vehicles destroyed or burning along the front lines, the officials added; footage from the AP shows coalition forces on the main road to the capital Sanaa cutting off the highway and further encircling the rebels, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) plans to reintroduce legislation that would end all U.S. support to Saudi forces in Yemen following the midterms. The legislation was tabled when it was first introduced in March, but Murphy believes the climate in the Senate has changed following the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and greater awareness of the catastrophic conditions on the ground in Yemen, Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

The U.S. must now “demand an immediate halt to the bombing, combined with the start of negotiations and a large-scale, global relief effort led by the U.S.,” following U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ statements on ending the Yemeni conflict last week, the New York Times editorial board comments.

An analysis of the shifting position of U.S. lawmakers on the Yemeni conflict is provided at NBC.

SYRIA

Conditions could be ripe for the Islamic State group to resurge in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General warns in a new report. The assessment comes in the context of renewed violence in northern Syria between Turkey and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.) militia, which forms the bulk of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighting Islamic State group in the war-torn nation, Lara Seligman reports at Foreign Policy.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 188 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Oct. 21 and Oct. 27. [Central Command]

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with top North Korean official Kim Yong-chol Thursday in New York as Washington and Pyongyang work toward a second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the State Department announced yesterday. The Department claimed that the two officials will discuss pledges made following the June summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim, “including achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea, Courtney McBride reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Top U.S. military officer Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford said yesterday that the U.S. would have to start making changes to its military stance on the Korean Peninsula over time if talks with North Korea progress. “The more successful we are in the diplomatic track, the more uncomfortable we will be in the military space,” Dunford told a forum at Duke University, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

President Trump said yesterday that he would “probably not” meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week during the Armistice Day celebrations in Paris, despite the previous announcement by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton that the two leaders would hold a meeting. However, Trump said that he would meet with Putin on the sidelines of G20 summit in Argentina starting late this month, reaffirming his view that improving U.S.-Russia relations would be a “good thing,” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

Spending on security-related construction in the Chinese province of Xinjiang rose last year by nearly 20bn yuan (U.S$2.90bn) or 213%, a report published yesterday by U.S. think-tank the Jamestown Foundation found. Beijing is accused of detaining as many as one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in the province, Reuters reports.

Nearly 8,000 U.S. troops will be sent to three border states in anticipation of a caravan of Central American migrants now traveling through Mexico, a U.S. official said yesterday. Nancy A. Yousef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

French President Emmanuel Macron called today for a “real European army,” so the continent might better defend itself against Russia and even the U.S., AFP reports.

South Florida man Cesar Sayoc – accused of mailing pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and other critics of U.S. President Trump – is expected to make his first appearance in Manhattan federal court today, after his case was moved to New York from Florida. Reuters reports.

“In the new Cold War with Russia … the U.S. must be prepared for the use of chemical weapons,” Hamish de Bretton-Gordon comments at CNN.

“The Foreign-Policy establishment reeks of desperation,” Stephen M. Walt argues at Foreign Policy. 

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About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).